A plural society like Trinidad needs a national unity government

Stabroek News
December 28, 2001

Dear Editor,

Trinidad has crossed one hurdle, that is, of President Robinson appointing a Prime Minister (Manning of the African based PNM) from the 18 18 tie in the just concluded general elections. But it in no way solves the major problem facing the nation, that is, of mending the fractured electorate that votes race. Another election will not produce a landslide for any party and in fact may be another tie. Thus, a solution must be found. A government of national unity enshrined in the constitution may just be the answer. Irrespective of what the leaders of the parties say, the parties are racially based and the electorate itself is racially divided, voting for the parties that they perceive as representing their race. Anyone who thinks otherwise is living in a fool's paradise. In fact, members from the various races have not been shy in saying that they don not want the other race to rule them Indians don't want Africans to rule them and vice versa. Thus, the parties have to be honest to themselves that they are representatives of their races and seek to guarantee equity in the distribution of the state's largesse for their races.

A government of national unity that is mandated in a revised constitution, would ensure that the races gain proportional representation in parliament and in the government. Since 1956 when self rule was introduced and elections held, the losing party (after every election) and its supporters have bitterly complained that they were victims of racial discrimination. From 1956 to 1995, for example, Indians complained they were excluded from political power. From 1996 to now, when an Indian led party has been in government, Africans have complained (real or imagined) they were victims of racial discrimination. A government in which neither race or party governs alone would help to reduce, if not eliminate, feelings of racial discrimination and alienation. Such a government would also help to reduce corruption and strengthen democracy making the people, as opposed to the parties, supreme.

A national unity government would eliminate the competition for racial dominance. It would promote stability. Members of one race would not feel he or she is being governed by the other race. Everyone would feel he or she has a stake in the system and would work harder for national development and economic growth.

A national unity government is the only way out of the logjam that is facing and that will face the nation in parliamentary representation. The last four general elections have been very close, revealing that the ruling party cannot have a commanding majority in parliament's lower house and as such needs the support of the opposition party. If one party (read race) gets 19 seats, the other party (race) will charge voter padding or gerrymandering. This has the potential to lead to political instability if not racial violence and civil war (remember Guyana). What better way to avoid this catastrophe than to involve every stakeholder in the system by sharing political power among them.

Thus, President Robinson should call in the leaders of the UNC and PNM (regardless of the fact that Manning is Prime Minister) as well as the leaders of the NAR and Team Unity and propose constitutional changes that would have power sharing as its centrepiece. The President should force them to accept change that would lead to a better Trinidad and Tobago. Among the changes that should be proposed is an expansion of the House (by an additional 21 members to be based on a system of proportional representation while retaining the 36 first past the post constituencies); the current size of the House is too small and does not make for effective constituency representation. The Senate should also be expanded by an additional 20 members also to be based on a PR system while retaining the current system of nominating the 31 members. An expanded parliament will allow for more representation and greater diversity of ideas.

Under this new arrangement, no party with a minimum threshold of seats would be excluded from power regardless of who is appointed the Prime Minister. The PM would be from the party that wins a majority of seats in the House while the deputy PM would be the leader of the party that has the second highest number of seats; the deputy PM would act for the PM in his absence. The AG position would be someone from outside the parties - perhaps from among nominations proffered by the President and selected by the PM. The same for the Speaker while the deputy speaker will be appointed by the deputy PM.

The number of cabinet posts would be divided up among the parties based on the percentage of seats each win in the house; the exact cabinet positions for the contesting parties can be worked out and specifically expressed in the constitution. The Senate President will be appointed by the PM from among several nominations proffered by the deputy PM. A Vice President of the Senate will be appointed by the deputy PM from among nominations proffered by the PM. The President will continue to be elected by a majority of the electoral college. In order for the PM, deputy PM, ministers and MPs to do their jobs full-time and not to live off kickbacks from contracts, their salaries should be doubled as should also the salaries of the President of the Republic, Senate President, Senate Vice President, Speaker, and Deputy Speaker.

President Robinson tried one love with Panday in 1986 but after he forced Panday out of the government in 1988, one love died. Robinson tried one love again with Panday in 1995 but after Panday forced Robinson out, one love died. Now Robinson has a third and final chance (given his poor health and age) at building genuine one love this time around with the leaders of the Indian and African parties. All the politicians need each other right now and would listen to the head of state. Thus, Robinson must not waste the opportunity. The President should immediately request funds to put together a team of experts towards reforming the constitution geared towards establishing a government that will truly represent the pluralist nature of the society via a national unity government.

Yours faithfully,

Vishnu Bisram
Director of NACTA (which predicted the tie)